The word mindfulness is used to describe our capacity to pay attention. In a world where most of us are living in our heads, the word seems conveniently cognitive, MIND – fulness. However, anyone who has participated in a raisin meditation soon becomes aware that the experience of mindfulness is actually a holistic experience, involving the body-heart-mind. Jon Kabat-Zinn has offered an alternative word ‘heartfulness’, which brings us closer to the relational nature of mindfulness. A way of paying attention, that is imbued with qualities of acceptance, receptivity, and the capacity to suspend judgement.
This way of being is tremendously healing, in the sense of the Old English definition of ‘heal’, which is to ‘restore to sound health’, to make whole. What does it mean for a human being to be made whole, and how does mindfulness fit into this?
Izumi Shikibu, zen poet, captures in the last line of his poem something of this human potential for wholeness:
Watching the moon
I knew myself completely:
no part left out.
‘I knew myself completely:no part left out.’ How would one know oneself completely? To get to know someone we need to spend time with them, to observe and listen to them. This is what we do when we meditate, particularly in formal meditation practice, whether we walk, lie in a body scan or sit in meditation. We eavesdrop on our mind, and to some degree, get to know it, gradually, over time, more fully. As we practice repeatedly guiding attention home to experience, we calm the mind and see more clearly. An analogy that is often used to describe this, is taking a glass of stirred up muddy water, and setting it down, after some time the mud will settle to the bottom of the glass and the water will become clearer.
As we practice in this way with continuity and persistence, we are likely, over time to encounter difficult or challenging parts of ourselves and our experience. Our capacity for both joy and sorrow, love and hate, generosity and miserliness, contentment and greed, kindness and cruelty, gratitude and envy, calm and anxiety, ease and worry, happiness and depression, sanity and the madness, it’s all present, in every human heart/mind, and in our practice we know it. Jamie Catto, musician and facilitator puts it like this:
‘ I believe we are a wise guru in charge of a mental patient. Because every single one of us has both, and both are needed to survive and thrive as a human. When we let them meet in the middle, then the magic begins to happen in our lives. What if we let the madness be true? What if we stopped constantly editing ourselves.’
What if indeed…and how? We learn on the eight-week course, and as we deepen our practice of mindfulness that when we cling to the parts of ourselves we like, and take up arms against the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, we increase our stress and suffering. The Sufi poet Rumi entreats us ‘to welcome the guests…even if they are a crowd of sorrows’, no small task. And yet through our practice, we can develop the capacity to meet our experience with greater kindness, acceptance and patience. We meet ourselves in the difficult states of heart – mind that we experience, breath by breath, and get curious about what we are experiencing. We get to know ourselves, ‘no part left out’.
In this process, we cultivate the attitudinal foundations, patience, non-striving, trust, suspending judgment, letting -go/letting-be, acceptance and beginners mind, because this is the only sane thing to do. The alternative is miserable, inner war. We study, listen to podcasts, read and practice. We meet like minded others in community, follow up groups and retreats, recognising that we are not alone in the joys and challenges of being human, and strengthening our resolve and practice. We do this, because we understand that the effort is worth it, the quality of our life is at stake. And we reap the rewards, in a greater sense of aliveness and vitality. There is ‘magic’ in this way of living.
Our practice then becomes one of cultivating an inner environment of hospitality for all that arises within us, the anxiety, the fear, the rage, the grief, the jealousy, whatever it might be. We increase our capacity for what life brings and live within an inner atmosphere of kindness, compassion and forgiveness. In offering this to ourselves, we are then able to offer this to others.
When I find myself submerged within a state of difficulty, confusion or fear, “It’s not my fault”, is such a tender refrain. This is how I find myself to be. This doesn’t mean that I feed the tendency for fear, envy, anger, whatever it may be, it does mean that I recognise that my experience arises unbidden, and that I am not always responsible for that. This is the way it is. These experiences are akin to weather patterns that come and cloud the heart – mind for a while. This is what it means to be human, that we are both light and shadow, sunshine and rain. To know this, and to embody this knowing, invites a kinder, saner way of living and being in the world. The world is in desperate need of people who live like this.
Alan Watts, Zen teacher, speaks eloquently in the Youtube video below about how Carl Gustov Jung, psychiatrist and psychotherapist, courageously and lovingly embodied this way of being in his practice and life. Enjoy!
Image: Valeria Nannini